Bon Jovi's tenth studio album, 'Lost Highway' opens with the buoyant and anthemic title track- a barn burner with a narrative drive that would even make Stephen King smirk. The performance is liberating and the lyrics are full of open-road romanticism. Its derivativeness is so charming that it may be the most perfect song I have heard this year; it's everything a Bon Jovi song should be. I only wish the remainder of the album was as timeless, immediate, and classic as these opening four-minutes.
In my rearview mirror
My life is getting clearer
The sunset sighs and slowly disappears
'Lost Highway' is a meticulously well calculated and crafted album made for the masses. Therein lays my predicament. When Jon Bon Jovi sings clichéd lyrics that could be ludicrous, we don't laugh, instead we believe each and every word. When he tells me he's "Livin' On A Prayer" I somehow look past the multi-millionaire façade because he can sell it better than anyone. However, I don't feel as if he sells it as well on 'Lost Highway'. There isn't a single song on 'Lost Highway' that I wish had stayed in the vaults for all eternity (unlike "Save The World", "Right Side of Wrong" and "Bells of Freedom"), but the album lacks variety. Many of the themes incessantly replicate themselves. Considering everything the band has been through over the last two-years, I was hopeful for a more philosophical record that was thorny, intricate and in the end unleashed a divine inner light like many of their best songs ("These Days", "Someday I'll Be Saturday Night", "Next 100 Years"). While there are instances of progression on 'Lost Highway', it's lacking the emotional depth I was hoping for.
These trinkets once were treasure
Life changes like the weather
The entire second half of 'Lost Highway' lacks ambition (I will always view records in Side A and Side B terms). It is beautifully constructed for country radio (thanks to top-notch producers Dann Huff and John Shanks); my issue is the songs reiterate the same themes of struggle and lost adoration over and over again. The issue at hand is that most of these songs aren't quite as good as Keith Urban at his best (and I don't consider myself a fan). "Everybody's Broken" is essentially "Welcome To Wherever You Are-Part 2", but not as good as the latter which is surprising considering it was co-written by Billy Falcon. "Seat Next To You" is syrupy but instantly forgettable while "Till We Ain't Strangers Anymore" is trite humdrum made expressly for country radio (although LeAnn Rimes vocals shine here). "The Last Night" and "One Step Closer" are virtuous songs that would stand out on a box set or as b-sides, but due to the sequencing on 'Lost Highway' they are lost without proper context. By the time the jukebox finale "I Love This Town" appears, I was disenchanted. The previous five songs were so tranquil I actually became detached from the listening experience. It also does not help that side one ends with the wonderfully harmonious "Any Other Day" which better sums up all of the themes on side two, in four-minutes. The second half could have used a little more aggression ( the b-side "Put The Boy Back In Cowboy" would have fit well here) and moodiness (another b-side "Lonely" would have bestowed a nice dissimilarity to the luster on the latter half of the album).
Instead of excavating their inner demons Bon Jovi settled for writing about one-dimensional themes giving the listener an album that can be digested (for the most part) on one listen. There is nothing wrong with making music for mass consumption, but here it feels forced. Songs like "Summertime" (a song I do enjoy) and "We Got It Going On" has the classic colossal riffs and backbeats that made Bon Jovi a household name but what are they trying to say to me? That arena football is good and I should get a season ticket package? While both songs are entertaining, they are fundamentally void of ambition and inspiration. Songs like "It's My Life", "Always" and "You Give Love A Bad Name" work because they weren't trying to copy anyone or anything. They flowed effortlessly from within and therein lay the difference between the melodic songs on 'Lost Highway' and their paramount past.
You grow up, grow old or hit the road 'round here
So I drive, watching white lines passing by
With my plastic dashboard Jesus, waiting there to greet us
With all of that being said, there are some quintessential Bon Jovi songs on 'Lost Highway'. "Whole Lot of Leavin'" may be the most forthright and sincere track on the album. There is no doubt this one is indisputably candid and you can sense it in the music. One lyric paints a picture of one lover stopping another and asking "Do we got it anymore?" There's a brief silence here before the band busts loose with hell bent wrath providing the song with a roaring finale that will have you hitting the repeat button instantly. This song epitomizes Bon Jovi at their best; forthright, sincere and unrepentant in their delivery.
You wanna steal a piece of time
You can sing the melody to me
And I can write a couple of lines
-"(You Want To) Make A Memory"
The album's most mystifying and challenging track, "(You Want To) Make A Memory" is a departure for Bon Jovi, yet it sounds refreshingly earnest. It's almost as if Bon Jovi and Sambora wrote this for each other. Forget two old lovers, these lyrics hit home and I almost fee as if the band was letting me into their inner sanctum on this languid, gorgeous and sedate song. They sound like an entirely different band
and this is what excites me about this song. It can be interpreted in many different ways. They are heading down the road less traveled here and I really wish the rest of the album would have been this ambitious.
'Lost Highway' finds Bon Jovi at a crossroads in their career where they are arguably more commercially relevant than ever, but my question is what are they sacrificing to try and remain at the top of the heap? Are they writing for themselves or for a potential mass audience who may or may not buy their record? Only Jon, Richie, Dave and Tico truly know. While I do realize this is a well crafted album, it just doesn't solve as many of life's mysteries as I had hoped.
Oh patron saint of lonely souls
To tell this boy which way to go
Album Grade: B-
*All lyrics from the song "Lost Highway" except where noted.
Anthony Kuzminski can be found at The Screen Door.